Welcome to the May 2023 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Though it’s actually the second Monday of the month.
To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably know that the coronation of King Charles III took place on Saturday. Therefore, this month’s free story “The Tear of Chronos” is a story about a coronation, namely that of Kurval, King of Azakoria, who crowned himself after killing his villainous predecessor in true sword and sorcery fashion, but is still required to go through the motions and is about as thrilled about the entire ceremony as King Charles looked at times.
The lengthy coronation ceremony requires Kurval to consult the oracle of the goddess Ashvarya and gain a glimpse of the future by gazing into a magical jewel called the Tear of Chronos. However, he gets far more than he bargained, when he enters the inner sanctum only to find himself not just with a statue of the goddess, but with a woman of flesh and blood who is the spitting image of the goddess and wears the Tear of Chronos around her neck.
So follow Kurval, as he meets a woman who may or may not be a goddess, uncovers a conspiracy and gazes into…
The Tear of Chronos
“When King Kurval took the throne of Azakoria in the Year of the Forked Serpent, he consulted the oracle of Ashvarya, as is custom for the newly crowned kings of Azakoria. Just what precisely the oracle revealed to him is not known, though King Kurval would go on to have a long and glorious reign, bringing peace, justice and prosperity to Azakoria…”
From the Chronicles of Azakoria by Ragur, Count Falgune
I. The Coronation
It was the day of his coronation, but Kurval, King of Azakoria, wanted nothing more than to retire to the royal apartments with a jug of wine and a leg of lamb and be left alone. But instead, he had to spend the entire day either on his feet or in the saddle — and all in full armour, too.
As far as Kurval was concerned, the whole ceremony was superfluous anyway. He had won the crown fair and square — by chopping off the head of the previous King Orkol and placing the bloody crown on his own head. As long as no one challenged him — and no one dared — he was king, ceremony or no ceremony.
However, his vizier Izgomir, whom Kurval had inherited from Orkol along with the crown, had insisted that a formal coronation was absolutely necessary to keep up appearances and pacify the nobles, the people, the priests and the gods. And since Kurval did not actually know a lot about being king, he’d gone along with it.
And so he had gotten up at the crack of dawn and dressed in his rich, but impractical royal robes. He had dropped to his knees in the temple of Odulf, God of the Sun and Lord of all lesser Gods, to receive the crown — the very crown he himself had taken from Orkol’s severed head not quite two weeks before — from the hands of the high priest.
Next, he had overseen a seemingly endless military parade, as every single regiment in the Azakorian forces plus various mercenary companies marched past Kurval to salute him.
First came the elite Blood Guards in their splendid red armour, led by the young Lord Vangenard. Vangenard had been involved in the uprising against Orkol for reasons of his own and had been the first to cry out “All hail King Kurval,” once Kurval had placed the bloody crown on his own head. In return, Kurval had given him command of the Blood Guards after Vangenard had slain his predecessor Vitericus.
Izgomir did not trust Vangenard. He said that a man who had turned first against Orkol and then against his employers would eventually turn against Kurval as well. And who knew, maybe he was right? However, Kurval liked the young Lord and for now Vangenard seemed to be on his side.
Once the Blood Guards had ridden past, came the not quite so elite Silver Sentinels in their shimmering silver armour. Their commander was one Baron Kelgurd. Kurval did not know the man well. However, both Izgomir and Vangenard had recommended him as a dependable man who was no friend of Orkol’s. And since those two almost never agreed on anything, Kurval figured he should heed their advice the one time they did.
Next came the Ruthless Swords, the mercenary company that Kurval had commanded before the crown of Azakoria had landed at his feet. He smiled and waved, this time with genuine enthusiasm. These were his people, after all, and he knew every single man and woman marching past him in the plain, functional armour of the professional mercenary. He might not be certain about the loyalties of Izgomir or Vangenard or Kelgurd, but he was certain about the Ruthless Swords.
Tsabo, commander of the Ruthless Swords, rode ahead, splendid in his gilded armour that gleamed against his dark skin. Tsabo was probably the only true friend Kurval had in the world. The armour had been a gift, together with the offer to become general of the Azakorian army. Kurval had hoped for an enthusiastic acceptance, but so far all that Tsabo had said was that he needed to discuss the matter with his wife.
Kurval decided to take the fact that Tsabo had chosen to wear the splendid plate gilded armour rather than his ordinary plain chainmail as a positive sign. Because he did not want to deal with the intricacies of kinghood, not to mention a palace full of backstabbing nobles who despised him, without his best friend by his side.
More soldiers marched past. Archers, pikemen and the alchemists with their deadly but cumbersome flash powder cannons. Soldier after soldier, a seemingly endless stream of them. All the while, Kurval was in full armour and seated upon his faithful stallion Shadowmane. The day was unpleasantly hot day and he found himself desperately needing to pee, but found that he could not move from his post until after the last infantryman had filed past.
Even after the parade, Kurval barely had time to relieve himself, before he had to sit on the obsidian throne to receive the oaths of fealty of the various nobles, most of whom hated him and half of whom wanted to kill him and sit on the throne themselves. To make matters even worse, the obsidian thrones was infernally uncomfortable and so his back and arse were sore, when he could finally rise.
And still there was no rest for Kurval. For now it was time to ride through the streets of the capital and gracefully receive the cheers and homages of the people of Azakoria who cheered and threw rose petals onto his path, which struck him as very wasteful, though at least Shadowmane appreciated having some petals to nibble on. Though at least the cheers of the people were genuine — unlike the smiles and bows of the nobles — though they were cheering less for Kurval than for the demise of his hated predecessor Orkol.
Once Kurval and his retinue had reached the temple district, there followed a tour of every single temple in Amalgonda to pay his respects to Gods that were not his in rituals that were meaningless to him.
“What am I even doing here?” Kurval asked himself, not for the first time.
Many years ago, in his homeland Temirzhan across the Great Sea, the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow had prophesied that one day, Kurval would be King on the far side of the great sea. So Kurval had travelled across those endless waves, not so much to chase a glorious destiny, but mostly because there was no place in his homeland anymore for a captain of the Royal Guard who had gotten his king killed.
Kurval had spent many years wandering the lands on the far side of the sea, selling his brawn and his sword to whoever needed his services. He’d started out as a lone sellsword and eventually rose to commander of a mercenary company in the employ of the King of Azakoria, the glorious destiny that the Dark Gods had prophesied long forgotten. Most likely, the Dark Gods had lied anyway, cause that’s what they did.
When some of the Azakorian nobles approached Kurval to enlist him and the Ruthless Swords in their uprising against King Orkol, Kurval had accepted without hesitation. After all, Orkol was perpetually late in paying, so Kurval felt he owed him no loyalty. Not to mention that the plotting nobles promised to pay Kurval and his people better than Orkol ever had.
Finally, Kurval had seen what Orkol did to the people of Azakoria, how he abused those he was responsible for. He’d seen how Orkol bled a once wealthy country dry. He’d seen protests and uprisings brutally squashed, citizens randomly arrested, imprisoned, tortured, executed. He’d seen men slaughtered and women ravished, all in Orkol’s name. Worse, Kurval and his people had even been ordered to take part in Orkol’s atrocities.
Unbidden, an image rose in his mind. Bodies swaying in the wind outside the walls of the rebellious city of Fredegond. Young women in plain white gowns with nooses round their necks, gently crying into their execution hoods, bound hands clutched in prayer, as they were led to the gallows.
That had been the last straw. Kurval had walked away in disgust and thrown in his lot with the plotting nobles. After all, Count Walbordo, leader of the plotters, could hardly be a worse king then Orkol. At the very least, he paid better.
He’d had no illusions why Walbordo and the other plotting nobles wanted his support. Their own troops weren’t sufficient to take on Orkol’s, so they needed Kurval and his men. The mercenaries were to be used as shock troops, to break down resistance, to fight and bleed and die, so Walbordo’s own men would be spared.
Kurval knew fully well that he and his people were expected to die fighting Orkol’s troops, that they were never expected to collect the generous payment they’d been promised. He also knew that they were better than that, better fighters, better trained. He knew they would prevail. And they did.
Once Kurval and his people fought their way to the throne room, he’d finally found himself face to face with Orkol himself. Kurval had treated the swine better than he deserved and gave Orkol the chance to draw his sword. But Orkol was not much of a fighter and so Kurval chopped his head off. The crown, still sticky with Orkol’s blood, rolled across the marble floor and landed in front of Kurval’s feet. And suddenly he heard the voice of the Dark Gods in his mind again, heard their prophecy, their mocking words. And he bent down to pick up the crown and put it on his own head.
And now that he was king, now that he had finally fulfilled the glorious destiny that he’d been foretold all those years ago, Kurval realised that he had no idea what came next. The Dark Gods had certainly never said anything about that and Kurval himself knew nothing about being a king.
This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in The Tear of Chronos. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.